LORI BUTTERWORTH DOES NOT MINCE HER WORDS WHEN TALKING ABOUT THE STATE OF MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS.
“The wait times alone to get mental health treatment are borderline criminal,” says the CEO of AIM Youth Mental Health, a Carmel nonprofit created nine years ago. Not only are there not enough psychiatric treatment beds in the state – only 746 beds exist in 16 counties, with none in Monterey County – there aren’t enough outpatient mental health professionals to see children and teens once they’ve left a hospital emergency room, she says.
“If you take your child or teen for an emergency, the average wait time to see a doctor or someone who can help you treat that illness is 50 days. Those kinds of things stop you in your tracks when you think about what if you took your child in for a toothache or broken arm,” Butterworth says. She argues that a mental health crisis is more life threatening. “It’s not to blame the provider population or the hospitals – or anyone – it’s just that we have a crisis. There is so much need.”
In an announcement of new youth mental health services issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom last August, he reported that one-third of seventh and ninth graders and half of 11th graders in California experienced chronic sadness in the 2020-21 school year. One in 10 children between the ages of 12 and 17 suffered from at least one major depressive episode in 2021-22. Suicide rates for California youth ages 10 to 18 increased by 20 percent from 2019-2020.
Butterworth says she believes not enough attention was focused on children and teens during the Covid-19 pandemic. They missed out on school time and developmental milestones, which has led to an increase in the current need for services. “There had to be a price to pay and I don’t think we knew the enormity of it,” she says. “The other sad component of it is that it made kids more addicted to social media than they had before. Whatever role social media is playing in this mental health crisis, it got exacerbated.”
Currently the state does not have the capacity to train enough mental health professionals fast enough to meet the growing need, she says, but there are other ways to bring help to youth and their families before they are in crisis. One solution could be locating behavioral health centers in schools, “bringing help to the kids so they don’t have to go and seek it out,” Butterworth says. That accessibility plus help for parents could play a big role in kids’ mental health.
Newsom’s announcement in August was for a $4.7 billion plan to “reimagine” youth mental health services, including the addition of 40,000 new mental health workers, at a variety of service levels. Some elements of his Master Plan for Kids’ Mental Health to support families were already available through a state website at chhs.ca.gov/childrens-mental-health-resources. The plan also seeks to make it easier for schools to provide access to mental health information for students and parents, as well as destigmatizing mental health support.
That’s good, Butterworth says, but she says it will take community members getting involved, as well. AIM is seeking to fill in at least some of the gaps by offering its Youth Mental Health First Aid Certification course to anyone in the community who is interested. Like first aid for physical emergencies, the certification seeks to prepare people for what to say and do if they find themselves with someone in a mental health emergency.
“Every teacher, every nurse, every police officer should be trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid, at a minimum,” Butterworth says. “[It’s] just as important as CPR and physical first aid.” The organization is also offering the training to teens to intervene to help their peers.
“We need to catch kids before they land in an emergency room, and it really takes everyone,” she says. “It takes community commitment to make it happen.”
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